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What do kangaroos have to do with developmental trauma and control, shame, hoarding and overeating?


Liz Powell, PCA Families Advisor, joins Sonia Wagner, Project Manager at PCA Families, to discuss developmental trauma. Understanding what developmental trauma is, where it comes from, why it is so challenging to preempt and what we need to do to help our children experiencing developmental trauma can be challenging but is so important. Children who come from complex backgrounds like permanent or kinship care or adoption are likely to have experienced some form of developmental trauma. Early trauma can arise from things known and sometimes unknown, like development in the womb while a parent is emotionally unavailable. Children experiencing developmental trauma can often be labelled as over controlling, naughty, a problem child or even autistic or diagnosed with ADHD. Yet these responses can hold the child back from progressing. Understanding their behaviour from a trauma informed perspective can help. Early trauma impacts the child by leaving them stuck operating in survival mode, leaving little room for higher executive functioning, even when they make it to a safe environment. The good news is that developmental trauma can repair within relationships with the right interventions at the right time over a long period of time. Liz shares some tips and ideas on how you can repair developmental trauma for your children.

00:00 - Start 01:27 - Liz's interest began when nursing newborns with skin to skin support 03:50 - Developmental trauma is an impact on the brain, senses, emotions and cognition 05:00 - Presents as control or shame, with anger, opposition, defiance, disassocation and disorganisation 08:16 - Helping schools to understand 12:40 - Triggers and warning signs 13:50 - Calming activities, diaries and emotions 17:30 - Hoarding 20:07 - Overeating 21:33 - Lying 24:22 - Personal experiences and different approaches to consider 25:56 - Get informed so you can explain your parenting choices and take care of self


Liz Powell, Adoptive mother and Permanent Care and Adoptive Families Adviser, and Sonia Wagner, PCA Families Project Officer

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our many recordings designed to capture lived experience and best practice evidence based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people.  

Being able to learn from peers and connect with those who may help us is particularly important. Today we are discussing Developmental Trauma. 

Before we do I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet. We pay respect to Elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.  We are a child safe organisation.

Today Im joined by Liz Powell. Liz is a mother to two gorgeous children, who came into her family through Adoption. Liz joined PCA Families in 2014 as an Advocacy and Support Advisor. She worked for 25 years as a nurse/midwife predominately in Neonatal ICU before retraining as a counsellor in trauma, loss and bereavement intervention and psychotherapy.  She has worked in both helpline and counselling settings and is passionate about supporting families with children with developmental trauma. In her time away from work, Liz enjoys spending time with her daughters who completed her family through adoption. Welcome Liz.  Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself? 


My initial exposure was in the neo natal unit being involved in one of the first kangaroo care skin to skin research trials.  So I could see what was happening when newborns were away from their primary caregiver. I was able to apply those learnings to my own life when adopting my children and really that’s where my initial interest stemmed from in the training in psychotherapy and counselling. So Im passionate about sharing what I have learnt with others now!


Today we are discussing the topic of developmental trauma.  Liz, can you tell us what is developmental trauma? 

Developmental trauma occurs when the child is exposed to trauma before birth and up until 3 years of age. This means that even if the child is in a nurturing environment now they and then they still exhibit elements of developmental trauma.   

It impacts the brain from the bottom to the top priming the brain to survival mode. This means that children with developmental trauma can see everything as a threat leaving little space for the brain to develop in other areas at the expected rate. They are in the fight flight freeze response all the time.   

It can impact their sensory, emotional, behavioural and cognitive development together with their sense of self and identity and ability to form attachments.  


What sort of ways does developmental trauma present at school? 

Parents and carers often describe their child as needing to control their environment. There may be problems with friendships with needing to control the play. Perhaps they are quick to anger and need a long time to calm down. Being oppositional and defiant or withdrawing and becoming easily overwhelmed in new or noisy environments. They may have delayed learning and poor organization skills. Often it seems that they have been taught a skill but the next time it’s tried it’s not there. This is because it hasn’t transferred to the long-term memory.   

At school the change of structure and routine together with the need to interact with peers can create an overwhelming environment. In particular the playground can be overwhelming and trigger the fight and flight survival behaviours.

Teachers may report the child is aggressive at school, gets into fights easily, has trouble with peers and maintaining friendships. Together with needing to control play and the group  

On the other hand they may disassociate (freeze) where they are very quiet with difficulty absorbing any teaching. 

They may be behind cognitively and you start to see them slip behind at school particularly around the years 2 onwards  

Organization is often noted as being poor with the effects of developmental trauma on executive functioning.  

Parents can report how difficult it is to get the child to school with poor organizational skills and forgetting whats needed for the day.  

Year 7 as children transition to secondary school with higher expectations and changing environment can be challenging with structure and high nurture needed to aid the felt safety needed.  

Sometimes we just need to take the pressure out of things and do things for these children. Telling to do these things doesn’t make them feel safe. And often they cant voice what their feeling so its double why it comes out in behaviour.

Behaviour is their form of communication. It may not be what you want to see but you need to understand why they are communicating that. Give achievable goals and sense of achievement to heal. 


I often hear how important it is for families to feel like schools understand the impact of developmental trauma on their child.  Often in times of change and transition it becomes particularly important. Do you have any advice on how to achieve this? 

Schools need to understand the need for no consequences and high nurture environment needed to help the child heal and for normal neural pathways to develop.  

Safe structured environments with simple strategies to deescalate a child where the child feels heard and in control are very important.  

One of the first things they need to understand is that this is an subconscious reaction triggered by the need for survival.  Once this is understood they can recognise potential risk areas or signs of stress and link to simple strategies to aid felt safety.

PCA Families has some survival sheets that can be shared with schools and that can generally help with acknowledging what is happening and identifying ways to support it.  PCA Families can interact and help the schools understanding.

Understanding that these children may be behind in all areas of development both social and cognitive is paramount to meeting the child at their developmental age not chronological age    

Keep the communication with the school short. Don’t give too much about your childs story, but just enough. You will have to reinforce that at transitions or from year to year.

Parents of other children is really tricky for other parents to understand.

You can suggest building connection between kids who are not getting along by suggesting a short play in a park.


What’s your advice or experience with triggers – how quickly do they appear – do you get a few warning signs first? 

Triggers are very quick to appear and are subconscious -children will often identify once they are in a calmer place that they didn’t have time to identify it was going to happen . 

Experts quote around 0.4 second to trigger and 20 minutes at least to calm down. Its something they cannot control.  

You can see therefore that trying to reason at this time is counterproductive and linking to known strategies to deescalate is the best support for the child.

Warning signs can be seen once you get to know a child. They may become fidgety or argumentative or may look like they are “staring into space”. 

The best advice would be to understand what environments or activities may trigger the child and have strategies in place. Remind them you are there for them.


Are there things to put in place to help or things we shouldn’t do or ways to calm them down once they are triggered? 

There will be things that help your child calm down . Say throwing a ball against a wall, jumping on a trampoline, using lego or sensory things like crunchy toast if you are at home.  Some will like activity and some will like quiet, it just depends.

Discuss what helps them deescalate eg cushion to hit, calm place with positive reinforcements (oils, crunchy toast, sensory things, caramel, weighted blankets, stones, tent, let child take lead/not cornered) 

Name the emotion/ feeling for child – let them know they are safe (I can see you are feeling overwhelmed – its ok you are safe . What can I do to help you?” 

Keeping a diary of when this occurs. Playgrounds with noise and interactions, remembering that they are behind in all areas of development, including social development. In years 5/6 with girls we see children with developmental trauma that struggle and can get into peer problems as they don’t necessarily understand what is going on around them in their more complicated friendships.  Again we can see blame towards that child.

Wrestling time and karate chops of newspaper seemed to help also. Cartwheels also to get out energy and anxiety. They are in control which helps them.


I see things like lying and hoarding sometimes in children with developmental trauma.  These are often just a reflection of an internal dialogue or perhaps a sense of shame or guilt, or ways in which they are trying to protect themselves. What things do you commonly see in your advisory role and what do you recommend as strategies to assist with these type of behaviours?    

Have structured meal times. Having snacks available at all times. Food needs to always be available to avoid hoarding.

When my child started kinder we had a box that they could go to whenever they wanted.

I had them involved in making the food. I used the slow cooker a lot when my daughter was younger.

It has to be healthy food and as they get more secure, channel it down to meal times.

Help with slow cookers, play with food, play with chocolate cakes, know the food is there and appealing to all senses. 

Cakes cooking means the smell will be available for a few hours, helping their understanding that food is always there. 

Set times for food in kindergarten – talk to staff about food always being available. 

If your child is going on camp – talk to them about food being accessible for example and arrange for teachers to make some available.

In school we also left food with the teacher so that if she needed it she could access it from the teacher. Because she had the control she never needed to access the food. She had control.

20:07 Overeating

What about when they don’t stop eating – they overeat because there is always access to food. If that continues talk to a psychologist. We need to nurture them internally so they can let go of food as a control. Give them that control through making their own food and what they would like as a balanced meal. Its really about involving them in planning the meals and making the food for the day, shopping for it.

21:33 Lying

With the lying what do you do?  You know when its happening! You don’t challenge it. Im not an expert, but personally using humour with that. Gently challenging but laughing at the same time as they eventually admit it wasn’t the truth.  That seems to work for me to break down the need to control and the need to avoid feelings of shame.  Keep remembering they are going into a protective mechanism and how are you going to chip away at that in a way that’s not confrontational.


You’re a mother of two children. Can you tell us more about your own experience of developmental trauma?  

Both of mine have presented in different ways so it is good to get to know your child and recognize the signs from each individual child.  But everything links back to control or shame and work out how to approach it.

Initially in primary school the teacher worked with me to ensure felt safety. I was called initially and took my child home when she became overwhelmed. She would become triggered if any routine or person changed. We put in a plan where she felt in control if her teacher was away. She was allowed to make the decision between 2 options. She had to always be moved to a class each year with a handpicked teacher and with 2 friends to keep that felt safety and always knew who her teacher was or plans for camp before others to keep that control and sense of safety. She can still overthink things.  

For the other child you would have thought she was completely in control. She did not exhibit emotion but would lash out in the playground when triggered, had trouble with learning, executive function and organization. Unfortunately by this time the school principal had changed and she fell further behind and relationships at school became more complex while issues started to emerge. Things are now starting to fit into place with a change of schools, trauma informed professionals and a highly nurturing environment in the school.  

You need the school to understand when they may trigger and to have nurturing supports in place. I have needed to use different interventions with each of my children and also different professionals as both related to different personalities. I have chosen different schools as found that they needed different approaches. I guess the most important thing I learnt is to trust in the process – they will be delayed but meeting with high nurture and a structured routine whilst meeting at their developmental age is really important to aide healing as they move through developmental stages.  

Remember if they are developmentally delayed, while they are going through their milestones, while they may not get there at the same age as everyone else, they will get there.


Any last thoughts or comments 

It is a hard road so make sure you get support and link into others with shared experience.

Its important to understand the effects of developmental trauma as you will be the advocate for your child when the path gets rocky! Get as much support and resources as possible from people and professionals as you will be questioned on your parenting style and at times your child’s behaviour. Family members may challenge you too when they see certain behaviours.  Link in with others so you can get support from those that are travelling the same journey.  

Self care is really important as these children take a lot of energy to support so you need to support yourself to be able to support them.

Thanks Liz for your wonderful insights.   

To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life.  If you are a permanent carer or parent needing help or support please contact PCA Families at  or call us on 03 9020 1833.  Please subscribe or leave a review, or share an idea for a future topic! Until next time have an amazing week.  

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